(SEIU’s Eliseo Medina, one of the country’s most prominent labor leaders, is leaving labor to focus on immigration reform issues. Photo/AP Images )

SEIU’s Eliseo Medina, on leaving labor to focus on immigration

Eliseo Medina, the International Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), will retire from working in labor and shift his focus to work on immigration reform. Medina has been with SEIU since 1986, and has been involved in labor for a long time.  In 1965, as a 19 year-old grape-picker, he participated in the United Farm Workers’ strike protesting for higher wages. After the strike, Medina continued to work with United Farm Workers’ co-founder and leader Cesar Chavez for the next 13 years.

Medina was able to talk to NBC Latino about the status of the immigration reform debate and how he plans to stay involved.

Despite the fact that the situation in Syria is dominating the news cycle, Medina remains optimistic that immigration reform is going to move forward.

“I think we just got off of a fantastic August recess. There were over 1,000 immigration reform events across the country, and we gave the representatives a lot to think about,” Medina says. “In October, we will have a national mobilization with a big event in Washington on October 8. We should not let Congress use Syria and the budget as an excuse to not do anything,”

When asked if immigration advocates are considering a push for an expanded deferred action if Congress fails to pass reform, Medina maintains that deferred action only stops someone from being deported, and is temporary.

“Deferred action does not solve the problem for the long term. Congress needs to schedule a vote. I think they can do it at any time,” Medina states. “We’re going to continue to keep the pressure on representatives and keep registering voters.”

Immigration reform has not always been an issue for labor. Even the UFW, of which Medina was a member, was not always as supportive of undocumented workers, because leaders viewed them as potential scab workers. Now the UFW, SEIU, and other major unions are part of the coalition pushing for immigration reform.

“In 2000, the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations] went on record in support of immigration reform. We cannot make sure that Americans have good jobs in decent conditions when we have millions of undocumented workers.”

“Our position now in labor is that we represent workers regardless of status,” Medina explains.

It has been said that conditions in the fields are not much better today than when the UFW was in its prime. According to one report, at the height of the UFW’s influence in the late 1970s, the base farm labor wage was two times the minimum wage. Using today’s wages, that would be about $16 an hour, yet most farm workers earn minimum wage or less. NBC Latino asked Medina why the wages and conditions haven’t improved as much over the years.

“Unfortunately, the momentum of the farm workers movement was stopped, so many are working for minimum wage,” he replies. “But today, they do have access to disability and workers’ compensation and some regulations to protect them injury and illness on the job. But we still have too much poverty and too many injured farm workers.”

Medina said that he’s optimistic about the future and that there will be plenty of Latinos in SEIU to rise to top leadership positions. Some of the up-and-coming leaders he mentioned include Hector Figueroa of 32BJ SEIU, Rocio Saenz, who was recently nominated to be the executive vice president of SEIU, Roxanne Sanchez of SEIU Local 1021, and the leadership of SEIU in Puerto Rico.

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